A Showcase of Shading: Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat
One of the most compelling qualities of the charcoal medium is its ability to conjure a remarkable range of texture and shadow. One figure who was revolutionary in capitalizing on this versatility was French artist Georges Seurat, one of the most celebrated figures of the late 19th-century Post-Impressionist movement. Following in the footsteps of their Impressionist predecessors, the Post-Impressionists sought to capture atmosphere, immediacy and, perhaps most importantly, the play of light in an environment. Seurat arguably embodied this desire most powerfully, epitomizing the pursuit of light and shadow in his own words: “let’s go and get drunk on light again - it has the power to console.” This investigation after light would carry Seurat into the uncharted territory of Pointillism in his paintings, such as seen in his iconic Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884-1886), but he also carried a similar level of innovation to his works in charcoal and conté crayon. Throughout these compositions, line gives way to an exploration of tone and texture, with Seurat employing such diverse applications that his compositions can be seen as a primer of charcoal techniques.
A native of Paris, Seurat studied traditional technique at the École des Beaux Arts, yet even during his early training he was already absorbed in contemporary scientific advances in how the human eye processes color, light, and shadow. This interest was apparent in his debut composition in the hallowed halls of the Parisian Salon in 1883: a conté crayon composition of his colleague and roommate, French Symbolist painter Edmond Aman-Jean. Here Seurat played between conventional line work and innovative shading, manipulating the texture of the paper and the versatility of the medium to conjure the fantastic contrast between the bold profile of Aman-Jean and the subtle glow seeming to emanate from his periphery. What is perhaps most striking upon further examination of Seurat’s charcoal and conté crayon works over the remaining years of his career (he unfortunately met his demise in 1891 at the young age of 31) is that the use of conventional contours as a means of conveying figural and material elements slowly slips away. Instead, he employed variations on hatching and Pointillism, the technique he also used in painting, to build his images. Thus, Seurat’s forms were rendered not through simple outline but rather through the meticulous repetition of smaller lines, dabs, and circles, some of which were subtly blended.
When taken in sum from the viewer’s perspective, these intricate strokes read almost as if one is looking at a slightly out-of-focus photograph, offering the viewer a seemingly illuminated vignette as opposed to simply a rendered drawing. This finessed technique, which he translated directly into his paintings, contributes to both Seurat’s celebrity as an artist and also the revelation as to why the charcoal medium is so powerful. Have you had the chance to observe one of Seurat’s drawings up close? What did you note about his technique? Have you embodied a similar approach in your own charcoal works? Tell us about your experience!